Climate Change-Fueled Heat Stresses Nuclear Plant, May Threaten Cape Cod Bay Wildlife

Gray seal (US Fish & Wildlife Service/Flickr)
Gray seal (US Fish & Wildlife Service/Flickr)
As heat waves fueled by climate change grip much of the East Coast, some nuclear power plants are facing a tough choice: Reduce electricity production on days when our air conditioners push demand to new heights, or pump overheated cooling water into local waterways. As the Cape Cod Times’ Christine Legere reports, it’s hitting home here in Massachusetts:

The owner of Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth may consider requesting an adjustment to the plant’s license that would allow the plant to draw warmer water from Cape Cod Bay than is currently allowed.

The ongoing heat wave forced Pilgrim to power down to 85 percent around noon Wednesday because the seawater from Cape Cod Bay, used to cool key systems, exceeded the maximum 75 degree temperature allowed under the plant’s license. The situation was a first in the plant’s 40-year history. […]

The temperature of the seawater being drawn from the bay must be cool enough to remove heat from the nuclear reactor’s generating system and convert steam from the system back to liquid water. The ocean water, although warmer when it is discharged to the bay, must not be so warm that it affects the ecosystem.

Cape Cod Bay is home to an incredibly diverse range of birds, fish and wildlife. It’s habitat for the critically-endangered North Atlantic right whale, favorite sea mammals like seals and dolphins, shorebirds, and fish vital to both commercial and sport fishermen, from flounder to bluefin tuna to striped bass.

Energy Sources Threatened by Climate Change

The problem isn’t isolated to Pilgrim. In Connecticut, Waterford’s nuclear Millstone Power Station is asking permission to release warmer water into Long Island Sound.

A new Department of Energy report warns it’s just one way climate change threatens America’s energy supply, reiterating many of the points the National Wildlife Federation made in a 2011 report.

Nobody ever predicted the water temperatures would go up this high in the Northeast when the plants were designed in the 1960s,” Nuclear Regulatory Council spokesman Neil Sheehan has said.

While New England has succeeded in weaning itself almost completely off of coal power, it remains far too dependent on natural gas and nuclear power. At this moment, New England is getting 74% of its power from gas and nuclear, with just 1% coming from wind energy.

A Homegrown Solution: Offshore Wind

Right now, America’s Atlantic Coast has not a single permanent offshore wind turbine. But America’s Atlantic Coast is home to some of the best offshore wind resources in the world, as the National Wildlife Federation detailed in our report last year, The Turning Point for Atlantic Offshore Wind Energy. Projects are moving forward off Cape Cod and off Block Island, and the federal government is on track to auction leases for development off a total of 5 states this year – Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia. This is exciting progress, but leadership from states along the coast is urgently needed to ensure that offshore wind power plays a major role in the region’s energy future.

New England needs to diversify its energy sources and properly-sited and responsibly-developed offshore wind energy can protect wildlife, cut climate-disrupting carbon pollution, and create thousands of jobs,” says Catherine Bowes, senior manager for climate and energy at the National Wildlife Federation’s Northeast Regional Center. “Local, state and federal officials need to keep working make the golden opportunity of offshore wind a reality.”

And best of all for wildlife, a coalition of top conservation organizations and offshore wind developers have agreed to a series of voluntary measures that will protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, while helping to expedite responsible offshore wind development, in the Mid-Atlantic.

Take Action Button

Please take a moment right now to ask federal regulators to speed efforts to develop offshore wind energy off the Atlantic coast.